Show Up for Teachers: Why connecting with others matters

First lady Abby Cox speaks at the Show Up For Teachers conference in Sandy, Tuesday. Human connection expert Marisa G. Franco told attendees that new teachers paired with more experienced educator mentors are more likely to remain in teaching.

First lady Abby Cox speaks at the Show Up For Teachers conference in Sandy, Tuesday. Human connection expert Marisa G. Franco told attendees that new teachers paired with more experienced educator mentors are more likely to remain in teaching. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first lady Abby Cox grew up in a family of 10 kids — eight girls, two boys — and 1½ bathrooms.

One summer, four of the girls got married. "I was not one of them, thankfully," Cox said during the opening session of the "Show Up for Teachers" conference on Tuesday at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy. The third-annual conference, sponsored by the Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation, is part of Cox's ongoing initiative on educator wellness.

Cox's grandfather suggested simply giving each bride a sum of money that would have been spent on their reception "and just move on."

Cox said her father swiftly dispatched the idea.

"He said, 'There is an importance in community. There's an importance in connection. ... It's so critically important for the community to come together, to connect, to celebrate,'" whether that was sharing the joy of a wedding or supporting someone in their grief, she said.

Cox's late father's sensibilities about the importance of connection were spot on, according to a growing body of research. Social scientists and medical researchers are learning more and more about the importance of social connections in emotional well-being and physical health.

Even though teachers' days are filled with connecting with students and the demands of their work, they can feel isolated in their classrooms, Cox said.

"Sometimes we don't feel connected, maybe, to the other teachers in our building, maybe to the administrators. Maybe we don't feel connected to our district, maybe we don't feel connected to the policymakers," she said.

When educators feel disconnected, their mental health and their effectiveness as teachers can suffer.

"Today is all about you. It's all about how you make connections, how we together as a community, as an education community, as a state, as business leaders, come together to support you, to connect with you. We want to support you, connect with you, so that you have the power to connect with each other and connect with your students," Cox said.

Keynote speaker R. Marisa Franco speaks at the 2024 Show Up For Teachers Conference, hosted by Utah first lady Abby Cox, at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy on Tuesday.
Keynote speaker R. Marisa Franco speaks at the 2024 Show Up For Teachers Conference, hosted by Utah first lady Abby Cox, at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy on Tuesday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Thriving through connection

Human connection expert Marisa G. Franco was the morning keynote speaker of the conference, titled "Thriving Through Connection."

Franco, a University of Maryland professor, TED speaker and author of the bestselling book "Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends," said research shows the No. 1 thing that makes people happy is connection.

Franco learned this anecdotally after a bad breakup in her 20s.

She reached out to her friend Heather and suggested starting a group to meditate, cook and do yoga to help Franco heal.

"So Heather agreed, we started our wellness group and it changed my life. It wasn't the meditation or the cooking, or the yoga. It was being in community with people that I loved and love me, regularly, throughout the week. I realized that before, I took connection, I took community for granted," she said.

Franco said she previously believed that only romantic love made her worthy. But what about the love from connected friendships?

She realized that those connections were like "gold under our feet that we often treat as concrete. We act like it's trivial. We act like it's extraneous, and it really hurts us, because research finds that the No. 1 thing that makes us happy is connection," she said.

Connection has a profound impact on physical health, too, Franco said.

"When we are connected, we release a hormone called oxytocin, which researchers also call the fountain of youth," she said.

Yes, regular exercise and eating a healthy diet decreases risk of death, but research shows a large social network is likewise effective.

"Mind blowing, right?" Franco said.

Unlike schoolchildren who forge connections and friendship readily, largely as a function of proximity and repeated unplanned interaction, adults seeking connection need to be more intentional and risk showing their vulnerabilities.

"As adults, many of us no longer inhabit environments where connection just happens organically, and if we rely on the same set of assumptions that we use with your kids, then you're going to end up lonely. According to the research, people that think friendship happens without effort are more likely to be lonely five years later; people that think friendship requires effort are less likely to be lonely five years later," she said.

She continued, "When it comes to connection, don't just wait for people to come to you. You are going to have to try."

Gov. Cox speaks about belonging

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he has become convinced that belonging is the most powerful urge on Earth right now.

"We are wired for connection. Everyone is desperate for belonging. We want it so badly that if we don't find it, we seek it out in very unhealthy places and unhealthy ways," he said.

Although social media platforms were created to help people connect, "now they're designed for addiction," Cox said.

Moreover, social media use increases anxiety and depression among youth and adults, the governor said.

"The social media companies have figured out how to get us addicted to our devices and to their social media, and they're starting younger and younger with our kids. Every design feature now is to get them addicted to this platform, to this algorithm, and it's absolutely working," he said.

At the same time, parents are increasingly wary of real world dangers, some to the point that they hesitate to allow their children to explore their own neighborhoods without intense supervision.

At the same time, in the virtual world, "they can see anything and everywhere, the worst of humanity all the time with no restrictions. That cannot happen. So here's the thing we're working on. We're suing them. So we've got litigation. We're legislating against those companies as well, and we're handing our parents, our families, to understand the power, the terrible power of social media. ... The research is very clear. We have to get these phones out of our classroom here," he said.

Many school districts are working on those restrictions, and if more needs to happen, "we'll do more working with the Legislature," the governor said.

One conference attendee, Alyson Simkins, an academic adviser at the private Heritage Spark Academy, said she was grateful to Abby Cox for making educator wellness a priority.

For educators, balancing home and school life presents challenges, she said.

"So for me, it's how do I manage my stress levels? How do I make sure that I'm not taking home my stress and taking it out on my family? How can I make sure that the things that I'm learning, I can share with my teachers and my co-workers, when they're also struggling? So how can I be more supportive, things like that?" she said.

Shawn Walker, principal at Canyon School District's Canyon View Elementary School, said he, too, was seeking new ways to support his faculty's wellness.

"There's a lot of turnover for teachers. The more I can do to help support teachers in having a healthy balance, being happy with themselves and just succeeding and thriving, the better our kids are going to be, the more they're going to learn," Walker said.

In addition to keynote addresses and plenary sessions, educators and school administrators could take part in a wide array of activities such as play pickleball, enjoy a foot or seated massage or indulge in a visit to the dirty soda bar.

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